Women tell Moneyish how they navigated becoming the “first moms” in their workplaces
Sen. Tammy Duckworth is expecting her second child, she announced this week, which would make her the first sitting senator to have a baby in office. The Iraq War veteran — already the first disabled woman elected to Congress and the first Congress member born in Thailand — was also one of a just a handful of House members to give birth while in office.
“I was the tenth one in the House, so there was a policy in the House, but I’m the first in the Senate,” the 49-year-old lawmaker told CBS News in a recent interview. “So I have to figure that out.” The Senate remains “behind the times” when it comes to mothers’ accommodations, added Duckworth, who has introduced legislation that would mandate major airports furnish lactation rooms.
But the Illinois Democrat, now in the unenviable spot of pioneering her workplace’s maternity-leave policy, is far from the first. Nicole Chung, web editor-in-chief of the platform Catapult, had to essentially “create something from scratch” when she got pregnant working at a small nonprofit in 2007.
“I honestly had naively assumed before that there was some sort of policy,” Chung, 36, told Moneyish. “It was a shock to find out that there wasn’t anything in the employee handbook, or any policy I could at least start from.” Her colleagues were primarily middle-aged men, she added, plus a couple of younger women who didn’t seem “ready or interested yet in having kids.”
So Chung, who lives in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, was asked to draft a memo outlining what she would deem “fair” accommodations. “It felt really demeaning at the time, but it felt like a hoop I had to jump through if I wanted any paid leave at all,” she said. “It was very much this attitude like, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do for you’ … I didn’t invent the idea of getting pregnant while you have a job. But that’s really how it felt. It was very strange.”
Ultimately, Chung said, she scrounged six weeks’ leave by pooling her accrued vacation and sick days and some unpaid leave. She was ultimately laid off during maternity leave, a move she attributes to bad optics and “really unfortunate timing,” but not discrimination. The situation wasn’t all terrible, she added: “Great insurance” covered her pregnancy and birth.
“Ask for what you think you deserve and what you think is fair,” Chung advised new moms in similar predicaments. “And recognize, too, that it isn’t really just even about you … This will definitely come up again in your company, even if you are the first.”
Zeesha Currimbhoy, 34, joined the startup Branch as its director of product engineering in 2015 — only to learn three months in that she was pregnant with her second child. Concerned she’d fall prey to colleagues’ unconscious biases, she kept quiet until the five-month mark. “I wanted to keep it a secret as long as possible so that I had a chance to prove that I should be judged on my merit,” she told Moneyish, “and not because of the perception of me being pregnant, the perception of me needing to take off work.”
But after revealing her pregnancy, the Sunnyvale, Calif., resident said, she encountered a “very supportive” atmosphere. The company allowed her to amend its existing maternity-leave policy to take more time off, and human resources held an office walk-through to identify a space that could be converted into a mother’s room. They found her a room with frosted-glass panes, installing a chair and refrigerator for her use. “What I really liked about it is they admitted they don’t know what all I need,” Currimbhoy said. “All I needed to do was tell them and work with them.”
As the sole pregnant woman in her workplace (and one with a high-risk pregnancy, at that), Currimbhoy also worked to foster empathy among her colleagues — making it a point to avoid stair-climbing, for example, and reminding people she needed to sit. “An important part of being the first one pregnant is to make sure that you’re creating that culture shift — that you’re speaking your mind out and not just living with it,” she said. “You start having conversations around work-life balance. You start having conversations around needing to leave early at a given time to pick your kids up from school. After you start having these conversations with the leadership of the company, they start becoming OK.”
No matter how lonely it gets, she added, “it’s important to realize that you need to speak up … because you represent the future of every other woman who’s going to be in your shoes soon.” Plus, you’re an example to other women in your industry weighing the decision to have a child, Currimbhoy said: “It’s on you to speak up and make them know it is possible,” she said.
Pittsburgh-based user researcher Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek, pregnant in 2012 when she worked at a small startup, was “the first one there to start a young family.” While she was fortunate at the time to live in California, which offers generous maternity leave, the company’s lack of an HR department burdened her with paperwork and benefits research that would otherwise have been presented in a handy packet.
Through much trial and error, her workplace “tried really hard to make things work”: Dickey-Kurdziolek would schedule calendar time to use a conference room partially converted into a lactation room while “everybody stayed clear” during those times; her employer bought a curtain to hang over the door’s glass window. After Dickey-Kurdziolek initially used the office fridge to store breastmilk, she added, a new female colleague with a young child advocated for a separate unit. “She was a little bit more close to the experience,” she said. “Through her, I was able to get a mini-fridge put into the room that I was using, and that became sort of ‘Meg’s fridge.’”
Start preemptively building a support system of people who understand your situation and “are close to it themselves,” Dickey-Kurdziolek said, especially if none of your colleagues can relate. And in retrospect, she said, “instead of saying, ‘Maybe could we perhaps have a mini-fridge in the lactation room?’ (I’d) just go in and say, ‘I would like a mini-fridge in the lactation room.’ Be more assertive about what you want, because ultimately the easier they make that for you, the better and happier worker you’re going to be.”
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